Published on December 2nd, 2013 | by Kelly Rose Bradford0
Lone Parents Mean Business: Samantha Howard from the Comms Crowd
Samantha Howard is a single mum running a freelance PR and marketing co-operative. Her Elliot was just nine when his dad passed away – something that Samantha says was her ‘turning point’ to create a different life for them both.
When did you become a single parent?
When our son was two. The following year wasn’t exactly magnanimous, but we got over ourselves and just focused on being good parents, which we managed a lot better apart than together. Elliot is 13 now.
What career were you in at the time?
I was an account director in a marketing agency in London. Once we separated, for the first couple of years I had to have an au-pair as none of the available care options could cover full time hours and a commute. But once Elliot started school I just sort of muddled through, cobbling together childcare solutions as we went. I didn’t have any formal arrangement with his dad but he was really flexible and always delighted to look after Elliot whether for just an evening or for a week if I had to travel with work. I stayed with the agency, working my way up until eventually, I was made director of the PR practice for London and New York.
What made you decide to take start your own business?
My job was great but I did spend a lot of time staring at spreadsheets and pondering thorny HR issues. Despite the kudos and the money, I had a bit of a hankering for a career less complex. Then in 2008 Elliot’s father passed away.
It really hit me that I was the only parent left, that I couldn’t afford to muck up, that I couldn’t be quite so cavalier with our lives as I had been when I knew his dad had been there for us.
I thought about our options for a while and worked out what was the basic amount of money we needed to get by and decided to earn just that – not exactly aspirational! I chucked in my fabulous job and became a freelance PR. I started with one contract (that’s all you need) and a very old laptop (big mistake). But it was a real thrill to open the door to my son every day when he came home from school. And the work kept coming in and increasingly I was collaborating with other senior consultants, then that became a bit of a freelance collective and then last year I formed a company around our offering.
How do you juggle work with parenting?
From a time perspective it’s much easier to juggle parenting with this role than with the agency job. Although the agency did obligingly turn a blind eye to my erratic time keeping it was still so stressful being perma-late. Now I set my hours to suit around all our commitments. Basically I just try to work when any time my son is not here including weekends and evenings. It’s a bit all work and no play but we do take a fair few holidays.
What is/what has been the biggest challenge?
Elliot is a really great kid: independent, kind, funny, super-smart. We share all the chores, enjoy the same tunes, jokes, films. My biggest challenge is to remember he is my child and not my tailor made companion. I know I burden him with too much grown up stuff and talk far too much about work. I struggle to make time for Elliot-centered activities. Though soon he’ll be at the age when we won’t want me to participate in Elliot-centered activities, so I may just get away with it.
What advice would you give other lone parents who want to start their own business?
The same for anyone who is considering their own business – be prepared to work all the time and still cook dinner with a smile. Be good at what you do, be organised about it, be commercial and focused. Obviously lone parents have multiple demands on their time, so be realistic about what can be achieved in a week. I draw up a list each week with no more than 30 things on it domestic, business, admin, outings, appointments etc, but make sure I get that list done, no excuses.
What is your biggest fear?
When one of us [me or Elliot] gets sick or has an accident (and we are both rather clumsy) we go from coping just fine to not really coping very well at all, it feels like we are a two legged table – we can’t afford for either leg to wobble.
How do you think lone parents are generally perceived by society?
From my experience, same as everyone else, if you do your best for those around you, you are accorded the respect you deserve> If you don’t, then you’re not.
Have you ever experienced any negativity as a single mum?
No. When I was with my agency they were very understanding in that respect and always made a fuss of Elliot if I had to bring him into the office – he was almost like the office mascot. They took the view I was paid to get the job done not to be at a desk at set times. And my current boss is just great…
Is it harder for lone parents to be self-employed/entrepreneurs?
Well it is a lot (more) responsibility but in some ways, single parents are already honed for that. Yes you are on your own, but just because someone may have a partner it doesn’t mean that the partner is necessarily supportive of your entrepreneurial ambitions – a rubbish partner can make things much worse than no partner at all.
Are you a one off among your family/social circle, or do you have lots of lone parent contacts and a support network?
I don’t know any other single parents, but we have really great friends and neighbours who look after us and include us in their plans. My best friend has come on holiday with us every year since Elliot was eight, and we all get on great. And my mum is a big support, I call her when I’m walking the dog – she’s a good listener.
Tell us more about your business?
I noticed when I was at the agency that for small companies the leanest PR/marketing retainer can be a huge investment. There is often a miss match in expectations as to what the company will get for their money, while the smallest agency retainer buys you an awful lot of freelancer. But at the same time it’s a bit of a risk investing all your brand’s hopes and dreams in one lone freelancer, hoping they can deliver all the skills all the time, but by banding together with other marketing freelancers, we could offer a broad skill set and continuity of service. Even though we are a company, there is no office and no one on the pay roll – we come together when there is a job to do and we disband when there isn’t, so the client has access to a range of professional marketing services but we can still work at freelancer rates.
The Comms Crowd is a London-based collective of senior independent communication professionals with expertise in B2B marketing for technology brands, primarily in financial and professional services, and the public sector.